On one hand, the Argentine attacker has injected experience and sophistication in helping lead two come-from-behind draws at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando. Defender Frédéric Brillant, also 35, is United’s only other goal scorer.
On the other hand — and it is a hand Coach Ben Olsen seems to prefer to play — Higuaín is still working himself into shape after a long layoff and probably isn’t ready for an extended assignment.
“He is just getting back into this,” Olsen said. “We still have to be smart about how we build him. But the goal is to build him to compete for a starting spot. … I am open to it.”
In the Group C opener against Toronto FC, Higuaín made his D.C. debut in the 80th minute and scored on a breakaway in the 84th, the first of two late goals by United in a 2-2 draw.
On Friday, he entered in the 69th and took advantage of a New England blunder three minutes later to forge a 1-1 deadlock.
A victory against Montreal would secure passage to the round of 16. A defeat would send United home in last place. A draw would leave D.C. in limbo until the group stage ends Thursday, when the four best third-place teams from the six groups are determined.
Grateful for the opportunity to resume his career, Higuaín seems willing to accept any role — on Tuesday and in the long run.
“I just want to play fútbol,” he said. “I want to play good fútbol and I want to be happy doing what I love, because this is what I love. And I want to do this as long as possible.”
Higuaín said it’s difficult to gauge his fitness level because United’s matches have come in a compact schedule. With three games in nine days, days off are consumed by recovery and tactical preparation.
Conventional wisdom says a player unable to log at least 60 minutes is probably not ready to start. Higuaín seemingly isn’t there yet, rendering him a super-sub.
“This is probably the first time in his life he has ever been considered a super-sub,” Olsen said. “He is a guy who is always a focal point and you build around him. But that’s the mentality that he has and the attitude he has had since he has gotten here — his willingness to do what is best for the team.”
Higuaín was a starter for most of his tenure with the Columbus Crew, compiling 55 goals and 63 assists across eight seasons. United midfielder Felipe Martins calls him “one of the greatest [playmakers] this league ever had.”
Higuaín’s younger brother Gonzalo is an Argentine national team forward who plays for Italian power Juventus after stints with Real Madrid and Napoli, among others.
An ACL injury ended Federico Higuaín’s 2019 season after three months, and at the end of the year, he and the Crew parted ways. United signed him late in preseason to provide attacking depth and impart wisdom as part of Olsen’s staff. (He is also the only bilingual member of the staff.)
“He has ambitions to coach, but we decided early that he was a player, first and foremost,” Olsen said. “And his job was to help this team win games on the field and get back to what he truly loves, which is playing the game.”
Before playing, Higuaín needed to strengthen his repaired knee. He was not in uniform for the two matches before the pandemic shutdown in March, but with MLS on hiatus for months, he gained additional time.
After a long wait, Martins said, Higuaín displayed in practice the enthusiasm of “a kid going back to the park.”
“I am happy,” Higuaín said. “Trust me. I am really, really happy. It was not easy for me the last year.”
What the Buenos Aires native has lacked is competitive soccer.
“It’s hard to be on the side and rehabbing and have a real influence,” Olsen said. “But when he got back on the field, you could see the respect our players have for not only what he has done but what he could potentially give us.”